Change the HOUSING Game — Case Study

Thanks for providing the opportunity to work with such an incredible organization here in Boston! It was a long and, at times, tiring process, but we really enjoyed designing the carnival games with CL/VU. We really thought through the ideas presented in the case study to ensure we were accurately translating the complex realities of the housing market into easy-to-understand and fun carnival games. We welcome and appreciate any feedback that would strengthen the games created. Look out for the carnival come spring!

Case Study:

Abstract:This past semester, MIT city planning students and the founder and director of Intelligent Mischief collaborated with City Life/Vida Urbana (CL/VU), a tenant rights organization in Boston, as part of the co-design class within the Media Lab at MIT. The goal of the project was to tie together CL/VU’s three campaigns: Anti-Gentrification, Anti-Foreclosure, and Anti-Investor. To tie the three campaigns together, we came up with the idea of creating a carnival that would help educate people around the complexities and profound flaws of the housing market. The carnival games highlight issues of affordability, displacement, inequitable urban development, gentrification, and foreclosure.

Drafting the Toolkit

Having returned to the drawing board to gather more game ideas, this week we fleshed these out and considered how each speaks to one of the CLVU campaigns. One of the new game ideas will be tested at the corner of Prospect/Magazine and Mass Ave in Central Square, Cambridge from 3-5 pm on Monday December 2nd. If it works and we get positive feedback, we will incorporate it into the final toolkit along with the Corn Hole game. Our next focus group, which will be held with the CLVU member leadership team, will take up a third game. Our goal is to have 2-3 working games to include in the final toolkit.

We are still debating what format to use for our website and what, if any, additional media components to include as supplements or complements to the online toolkit.

The toolkit outline, including some draft text and current game ideas, is included below:


Who we are
Mike – City Life/Vida Urbana communications coordinator
Terry – community organizer/founder of Intelligent Mischief (a civic media hack lab)
Nene – youth worker/MIT urban planning student
Dara – former legal/housing advocate/MIT urban planning student

Background: The issue
City Life/Vida Urbana has been supporting tenant organizing to preserve housing affordability and resist displacement since their inception in the 1970s. Since the foreclosure crisis post-2007, CLVU has worked with tenants and homeowners facing eviction and foreclosure to help them stay in their homes. As the number of foreclosures has decreased, the narrative that the foreclosure crisis is over has risen. CLVU staff, however, continue to see people suffering foreclosures and evictions. They have seen housing prices rise as private investors buy up vacated homes and flip them for a quick profit. In these trends, CLVU recognizes the formation of a new housing bubble and wants to avoid a return to “bubble economics” by challenging the dominant narrative with one that reflects the experience of its members in Boston, and the working poor nationwide.

We came together in the MIT Media Lab course on Co-Design in the fall of 2013. Our goal was to develop an alternative narrative that addressed the systemic crisis that CLVU was helping households in Greater Boston address. We wanted this narrative to connect CLVU’s campaigns three campaigns, which fight eviction foreclosures, resist gentrification, and shed light on real estate investors who are turning a profit on foreclosed homes. We aimed to situate our project in a broader national economic context because we knew Bostonians weren’t the only ones struggling to stay afloat and retain their homes.

How to use this toolkit
We have created this toolkit with the expectation that it will be adapted, that it will serve as a starting point for activists to bring the issues most pressing to their communities into the public eye. We have designed an interactive model because we believe an engaging, social, tactile experience will enable the synthesis needed to shift how we think about the economic injustices of our times. It isn’t only the housing game that’s rigged. Use this toolkit to investigate the way the systems that most impact your community are structured, and to educate your community about what you learn. Use it to imagine how you would like to change these systems. Use it to connect with people who can help.  Ready? Okay, let’s go and Change the Game!

The Carnival
Carnival games promise a fun time and a big prize. But how many of us have ever won a carnival game? How many have actually gotten that big stuffed animal prize? Very few. Why? Because the carnival games are rigged so that it’s almost impossible to win. Similarly, the housing market promises a coveted reward, while the mortgage-lending practices that led to the 2008 market crash made it impossible for consumers to “win” that game either. However, much more is at stake in the housing “game.” Homebuyers’ and renters’ life savings and hard work go into their homes, whether in rent, mortgages, maintenance or improvements. A fair market is supposed to be fair, not a carnivalesque game of tricks and mirrors, promising rewards it never delivers.

Housing Narrative: three campaigns, related by a story:


  • Cornhole:
  • Three holes:
    • Top – $50,000
    • Bottom two – $25,000
    • Board – $10,000
  • Goal is to to make $72,150
  • Jelly Bean Guess


  • Musical Chairs


  • Tarot card reader
  • Shell Game, or Who’s holding your loan?
  • Hot Potato


  • Pop a balloon: show that bubbles — like housing bubbles — do pop
  • Communal Mural


Format of the Carnival


Call to Action/Next Steps

Appendix A:
The group convened under the goals set forth by our community partner City Life/Vida Urbana, and CLVU’s liaison Mike Leyba. We began by meeting with CLVU Executive Director Curdina Hill, who grounded us in a firm understanding of the organization’s history, mission, and current issue areas. Early in our process, Nene and Terry led the group in a “They Say, We Say” exercise in which we responded to dominant problematic arguments about the housing crisis. The counter-arguments we developed in this exercise served as a guide for us to return to throughout the process.

Each step was iterative: we met weekly outside of class to revisit the last steps in our process, determine our next steps, and ground these in the overarching concept, which was itself in constant development. At key points, we integrated the feedback and participation of others. We brought our ideas to the CLVU member leadership team several times, and incorporated their recommendations. The course professors offered criticism. We tested our design in focus groups with the leadership team, our classmates, and the public. We used class time to brainstorm design concepts and ideas, again referring to the points derived from the “They Say, We Say exercise.”

Brief Update

On Thursday, we talked for a while about how we need to not only create a specific narrative around the housing crisis, but also a broader narrative around capitalism so that other individuals/organizations can adapt the games to the justice issues they work on.  The toolkit will address both narratives.

We also started to flesh out how the carnival will be set up — how will people move through the carnival (in groups or not) and if there will be a ‘ringleader’ of sorts navigating people through the current housing market system or just a barker at every game who can tell part of the narrative.

We realized that we were creating the games in isolation of the narrative we were trying to get across, and we need to link them together. So we also worked on fleshing out the overall narrative we are trying to convey, which will combine the three CL/VU campaigns, and are ensuring that the games will fit into that narrative.

For our meeting this Thursday:

Nene will create an outline that will serve as the foundation of the toolkit

Terry will create a solutions game

Mike will get us another meeting with the BTA leadership team so we can playtest games/get ideas for how to tie data points to specific games.

Dara will continue to flesh out a narrative around the housing crisis that will more coherently connect to the games.


Week 8 Class at City Life/Vida Urbana


CLVU organizer handing a bank tenant association member the sword to fight her foreclosure.


Marshall Cooper shows a poster he used at a recent protest.


A new member shares her story for the first time at CLVU.

We had an amazing class at City Life/ Vida Urbana in which we were able to participate in a portion of the organization’s weekly Boston Bank Tenant Association meeting.  This meeting is open to anyone who is facing foreclosure or eviction or anyone who is supportive of those who are and wants to help with the cause. At the meeting, CLVU organizers discussed with members and new participants next steps for specific cases and appropriate advocacy strategies, which combines direct action and public pressure on the banks (the Sword) and legal defense and advocacy (the Shield).

Halfway through the meeting, our class met separately with two bank tenant association members: Marshall Cooper and Ken Tilton, who generously shared their stories with us. We were touched by how Marshall, Ken, and City Life welcomed our class into their space and treated us as part of the organization.  Reflecting on the experience, students later explained what struck them about it:

  • Moving stories of people’s experience at CLVU
  • The power of collective intake
  • Creative methods for generating and sharing ideas
  • The ability of the organization to draw out vulnerabilities and build a supportive group environment
  • The facilitation skills of CLVU organizers and their ability to manage such an emotionally-charged space

Photos by Sofia Campos

Change the Game!

In this past week’s meeting at City Life, fragmented ideas snowballed into one cohesive game plan. We solidified three games — cornhole, disc drop and knockdown the 1% — and attached data points to them. We are still developing a few more to playtest to make sure the ones we end up choosing each tell part of the overall story we are trying to convey and are engaging to a broader audience. We also decided that we would no longer build a video game, but create an interactive prezi presentation that tells the overall story of the housing crisis and will be part of our toolkit. We further decided that we would actually have the carnival at the end of the semester at City Life. We believe that if our end product is a toolkit, it is imperative that we document the success of our own carnival to gain buy-in and legitimacy for what we hope others will create. We plan to hire a videographer to film the event and include the video in our toolkit to demonstrate what a successful carnival could look like.

Lastly, we decided that the narrative of the carnival would be, ‘CHANGE THE GAME.’ Participants will first enter a space that tells the story of our current rigged housing market — where there are few winners and many losers. This space will reflect what an actual carnival is like. After participants play all of the games in the dark carnival space, they will enter a space that provides a vision of what a fair housing system could look like. Participants will get the chance to learn about more radical initiatives taking place, as well as what more moderate initiatives could look like, and think through how those solutions (and new ones they come up with!) could be implemented to CHANGE THE GAME. We are still figuring out how best to convey this — is it through solutions games or focus groups or theatre, or a combination of all three?

On Saturday, we were able to get 50 minutes in CL/VU’s leadership meeting to have members playtest the two games Dave (a carpenter and member) created to get feedback on what worked and didn’t work. It was really helpful to do this because, as we learned, ‘Knockdown the 1%’ did not work as we had hoped — it was too complicated and the message wasn’t very clear. So, back to the drawing board! However, cornhole was a success — players and observers really took to the game and gave us great feedback on how to make it even better. We are continuing to develop new games, so, hopefully, we will be able to playtest the new games that we create soon!



The role of data

After we did our first project iteration, we realized that we had stepped away from the fundamental reason why we connected carnival games to the housing market: they are both rigged with the appearance of being fair. What we had started to do was to create rigged games that were obviously unfair (see the last post about CLVU). Not only is that no fun, but it does not invite understanding of the rigged nature of the housing market.

So in our second project iteration, we decided to go back to the original idea of regular carnival games and really apply our thinking around how to connect the unfairness of the game to the unfairness of the housing market and capitalism in general. To do this, we decided to connect the games to real statistics and data. As a team we knew that data would play a role in supporting our narrative – the questions was always how. We didn’t want the data to drive our narrative – the facts and data about foreclosures and housing have always been on our side. The dominant narratives that exist in society however make it hard to accept and digest numbers that don’t fit the frames we already believe. For example, you really believe it is the fault of the people who can’t afford their mortgages that they lose their homes, a simply citing a data point that says otherwise – citing predatory lending, the racial disparities, etc., for example, won’t normally change your mind.

We believe, however, that pairing statistics with the experience of the game – will allow for a “psychic break” if you will. When people are confronted with the sad fact that they can’t win the game along with the reality of the statistic, we hope that a deeper understanding of the way the system works can be reached. For example, we thought to assign different holes in the cornhole game with a dollar amount and make the goal to accumulate a certain total dollar value. This will be difficult, as most carnival games tend to be [but, hopefully also really fun!]. At the end, we will reveal that the total amount they should have accumulated is equal to the total amount of rent for a 2-bedroom in Boston. Boom. Shock. & Awe. [+Fun in a way]. The power of the statistic will come from the narrative under which it is presented – i.e., the undeniably difficult, rigged, and unfair, carnival games.

We will update with pictures of our second iteration as soon as possible. Looking forward to feedback from everyone!

CLVU First Project Iteration

In Tuesday’s class meeting, our team was given time to workshop our project.  Following Aditi’s advice, we used the points generated in our first meeting with the “They Say, We Say” exercise, to get ideas for specific carnival games.  In groups of four, our classmates suggested ideas for games that would address these points.  One team member shadowed each group and took notes.

Our team met privately on Thursday to present the ideas to each other and pick which ones to use.  We also discussed the possibility of creating a digital game, and Mike showed us a great example one.  We took some time to brainstorm independently before discussing the strengths and weaknesses of different ideas.  Eventually we settled on a list of four live games, and shared some thoughts on possibilities for a digital game.

The team made important progress this week.  We have decided to create a carnival toolkit rather than produce a live carnival.  To test and perfect each game, we will facilitate a series of focus groups.  When the games are finalized we will create supporting graphic material, guidelines and instructions, and make these available online so that the games can be replicated anywhere.  The digital game will serve as a way to popularize and introduce our carnival to a national audience.  It will appear on the CLVU website, along with a link to the carnival toolkit.

At our next meeting we will discuss remaining concerns both about how to engage users and how to effectively demonstrate the key lessons behind each game.

Below are rough models for the four live games.





Ring Toss:

Ring Toss

Knock Down the 1%:  In this game, the goal will be to knock down a stack of milk jugs, the twist being that one or more of them is glued to the table.  Anyone can play, but the 1% will always win this rigged game!



Seizing every opportunity for feedback and collaboration

On Friday, we shared our draft project proposal with members of City Life/Vida Urbana’s Bank Tenant Association leadership team. BTAs form a significant portion of CL/VU’s membership and at this weekly Friday night meeting, BTA leadership team members discuss organizing strategy and figure out next steps for actions they want the membership to take.

Mike, Terry, and I presented the project idea our team came up with feedback from some of the CL/VU staff – to develop carnival games that reveal the deceptive nature of the market. We were only one agenda item on a long list of items they needed to cover during the meeting, so one major lesson learned in designing feedback activities is to keep in mind the time and stick to the process design! We designed a process for them to give us feedback on the idea – we told them about the project and asked them to record any questions, concerns, and general feedback/suggestions on separate post it notes and put them up on a flip chart. We then gave them space to ask any clarifying questions they had first. When the hands started shooting up, we started answer the questions. It was only later that we realized that we were trying to answer questions that they should should have written down for us to discuss and decide later! It was fine, we just ran out of time and told people to write the rest of their questions and concerns down for us to review later.

Still left to do is discuss these new ideas with our team members and revise our draft project proposal to reflect what we come up with. The feedback we got was really good and raised the point that I think we all considered early in the project but didn’t know quite how to address: could some CL/VU members join our team and therefore move from feedback givers to decision makers on our collaboration spectrum? Fortunately, some BTA leaders were really excited after hearing the project idea and want to contribute as team members – or at least come to some meetings. So, we also need figure out a system that works for including BTA leadership team members into our meetings – a great logistic problem to have!

Terry and I stayed for a bit more of the meeting as the BTA leaders discussed their plans for the National Day of Actions on the housing crisis on October 28th. The major demand nationally from organizations and coalitions working on housing and on the housing crisis is for the replacement of Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) director Ed Demarco. FHFA oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which has for the past six years, refused to do principal reduction, a practice that allows homeowners to pay on the current value of their home. This is ultimately cheaper for banks than foreclosure (1), but more importantly keeps families and family businesses in their homes. A later conversation with a BTA leader revealed to me how little support organizers feel from student organizations on college campuses. He wondered to me: why aren’t students organizing talks and lectures about this? Isn’t this an urban planning program? This issue and this demand is important – students and professors can have so much more influence on issues like this!

This was important to me because, as a new organizer who plans to continue to work in Boston on a range of planning issues, it gave me pause about whether I had some missed opportunities by not focusing more on how students at MIT and in my planning program at DUSP can partner with communities and community organizers to raise the profile of issues like these and increase pressure on targets as part of an organizing strategy. Further, however, it emphasized to me the importance of our codesign project because I think ultimately I want community members and leaders to feel like they have the tools to design projects that tell their stories, weave their own narratives, and win real policy changes – with or without support from people they might feel have more power. I hope this project accomplishes this, or at least encourages dialogue about it.


See draft Project Proposal here.

Collaborative Thinking Snowballs into Exciting Ideas! (Our 2nd meeting at CL/VU)


Yesterday, we had our second meeting at CL/VU. The original plan was to join in on the last half hour of their staff meeting to get feedback from the staff on our initial project ideas. However, since it was the National Day of Mourning, the staff meeting was canceled. But that didn’t set us back! Thankfully, Steve Meacham, the Organizing Coordinator, and Dave Burt, the Special Projects Assistant, were able to join in on our meeting to engage in another exciting and productive brainstorming session.

Over the past week, we came up with 8 potential project ideas and presented them to Steve and Dave at the meeting. All of us at the meeting got hooked on one idea in particular that could tie together the three CL/VU campaigns, and promote a larger narrative around the housing crisis.  Although the idea still needs to be vetted by the rest of the staff, we spent our meeting working to expand that idea and incorporate the other ideas we had come up with. We decided we would work to create and plan a large carnival. Wait…A carnival? How can a carnival challenge and shift the dominant narrative around the housing crisis? Stick with us for a moment…

Carnival games promise a fun time and a big prize. However, how many of us have ever won a carnival game? How much money have we wasted trying to get the big stuffed animal prize? A lot. How many have actually gotten the big stuffed animal prize? Very few. Why? Because carnival games are rigged so that people are unable to win. Similarly, the housing market promises a giant reward (namely, stability and equity), but the system is set up so that people don’t win. Unlike a carnival game, however, people’s life savings and hard work go into the process of “playing the game.” However, a fair market is supposed to be fair; not a carnival game.

Playing on this idea, we hope to plan and create a large carnival in the spring. The purpose of the carnival would be to help educate people about the housing crisis and illustrate how we are all pawns in a larger game. My hope is that the carnival will provoke questioning about our institutions and system, build a movement that breaks habits of inaction and, ultimately, creates a new collective consciousness that not only challenges, but also shifts the dominant narratives around the housing crisis to stimulate action. I especially think it will be important to have the carnival strongly tie into City Life/Vida Urbana’s organizing work, so that people don’t just leave and say, ‘that was nice.’ There needs to be a direct connection established between the carnival and how people can get involved in CL/VU’s work. We are, of course, still working through how it would look, but what we know for sure is that we want it to somehow tie into the policy recommendations CL/VU wants to give to the newly elected mayor. We hope that the mayor will be present on the day we hold the carnival, as well as other relevant stakeholders.

However, to promote the carnival and pilot our ideas, we plan to hold a series of small events throughout this semester in Boston/Cambridge. We want to see how people respond to our games. A few ideas emerged yesterday of smaller games we can pilot:

  1. Exaggerate and give hula hoops to bankers and tiny hoops to regular people

  2. Game of musical chairs – chairs disappearing showing how homes have disappeared

  3. Hall of mirrors to see how distorting the effects of the market can be

A few other ideas that emerged from yesterday’s meeting are to work with artists to create a new magician caricature who can serve as the carnival’s mascot, as well as the mascot for a new, larger campaign around de-commodifying housing; develop a ‘virtual carnival’ to help promote the event that could also serve as a work product of this class; and have the carnival become a traveling carnival — working its way to different homes/spaces in the Boston area, or can even be a replicable model that other cities could readily adopt — to build a larger movement and awareness around the housing crisis. Nothing is set in stone, but we are making progress, and I am really enjoying our collaborative thinking process.